Let me say I have always liked Keanu Reeves even when his movies didn’t quite hit their mark. He has always come across as a likable guy which has often translated onto the screen. That’s why I’m glad to see him put out a movie like “John Wick”. Let’s face it, Keanu’s career reached its high point during the 1990s and early 2000s. Now at 50 years old he stars in a stylized revenge thriller that tips it hat to several films that came out during his heyday.
Let’s get this out of the way first, “John Wick” is a hyper-violent action movie and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. There isn’t much character development. There isn’t a lot of shoehorned drama. There aren’t hidden deeper meanings. But there are a ton of bullets, blood splatters, and broken limbs not to mention a body count that would rival anything from Stallone or Schwarzenegger. In many ways it’s a throwback flick and I really appreciated what it set out to do.
Reaves plays the title character John Wick, a retired hitman mourning the recent loss of his wife to an unspecified illness. We don’t get any drawn-out backstory about their relationship or the onset of the illness. Just quick flashes that indicate they had a very healthy and loving marriage. After her funeral he receives a delivery – a puppy his wife had arranged to be delivered upon her death in hopes that it would help John cope with her passing. It doesn’t take long for John to take a liking to the puppy and it appears that it may be helping him deal with his loss.
That changes when he meets three thugs tied to a Russian gang led by Iosef (Alfie Allen). Iosef takes a liking to John’s ’69 Mustang and is angry when John refuses to sell it. Later that night the trio attack John in his home, kill his puppy, and steal his car. This triggers the other side of John Wick – the side directly tied to his past as a lethal hitman. He sets out to find Iosef who we learn is the incompetent son of the Russian mob boss Viggo (played by Michael Nyqvist). Viggo knows John Wick which means he knows what’s coming so he sends his mob army out to kill John before John kills his son. Obviously that is no easy task.
From there directors Chad Stahelski and the uncredited David Leitch stomp the accelerator and rarely take a breather. The action comes furiously and without remorse. And the influence of Hong Kong action cinema is undeniable. Both the early martial arts flicks and the later stylized John Woo shoot-em-ups are represented in some form in “John Wick”. It’s that style and sense of homage that keeps this from being your run-of-the-mill action tripe. The fight choreography is intense and the gunplay is absurdly entertaining. It’s so insanely over-the-top but it never becomes dopey or farcical.
Recently Keanu Reeves has shown his affection for foreign action movie formulas so he is right at home here. In fact you can even see reflections of his popular “Matrix” series which makes sense. He first met Stahelski and Leitch on the set of “The Matrix”. In “John Wick” he becomes the familiar but convincing blank-faced killing machine, but he isn’t restricted to that thanks to some subtle, timely humor and the feeling of sympathy we have for his character.
“John Wick” may not do anything to reinvent the revenge thriller or action genre, but does it really need to in order to be successful? Not for me. It’s definitely a movie made for a particular audience and if wall-to-wall action and stylized violence isn’t your cup of tea neither is “John Wick”. But as someone who grew up during the time when big action movies were topping the box office, this was a satisfying and entertaining retreat. It is a cool nostalgic trip that also managed to feel surprisingly new. It definitely had more to offer than I ever expected.